Panel with Aeneas sacrificing to the Penates
13—9 BCE. Rome, Museum of the Altar of Augustan Peace (Ara Pacis Augustae)

Panel with Aeneas sacrificing to the Penates.

13—9 BCE.

Rome, Museum of the Altar of Augustan Peace (Ara Pacis Augustae)
(Roma, Museo dell’Ara Pacis).

This relief, one of the most complete and praised of the whole composition, appeared in a prominent position to the right of who approached the main facade of the Ara from the Campus Martius. At the centre of the picture is paler Enea, already well on in his years. He is portrayed in his priestly garb, his head veiled by the hern of a cloak draping his hips, in the gesture of libating an offering on a rustic altar. The right arm’s end is lost, but the figure is likely to have held a patera, that is a ritual cup, in his hand; this detail goes together well with the presence, in front of him, of a young attendant to the rite (camillus) who carries a tray (lanx) with some fruit and bread and a jug in his right hand. Following this one, another attendant leads a sow toward the sacrifice. Behind Aeneas, almost entirely lost, is a male character dressed in “the Trojan style”: he wears a long-sleeved tunic with a short mantle buckled on the right shoulder. This figure probably represents Iulus-Ascanius, Aeneas s son, who bestowed his name on the gem Iulia. The figure’s physical build reveals that he is no longer the child who escaped from Troy with his father and grandfather, but, in a later stage of the foundation myth, a man, still young, but almost in his mature age. Since its finding—in two different stages, in 1859 and in 1903—this relief has been interpreted in the light of Book Eight of the Aeneid, written just a few years earlier than the realization of the panel itself. In this part of his work, in fact, Virgil tells that Aeneas, after his landing on the coast of Latium, saw many premonitions come true, among which the appearance of a white sow, that the hero chased to a clearing, where the animal gave birth to thirty piglets. Aeneas recognized the omen and sacrificed the animal on the same place where Lavinium was to be founded. However, the panel of the Ara Pacis seems to refer to a different version of the myth, as narrated by Dionysios of Halikarnassos, a contemporary scholar of more or less the same age as Augustus, according to whom (Ant. Rom. I, 57. 1) the sacrifice was not offered to Juno, as one reads in Virgil, but to the Penates, the household gods of the Trojans and the ancestors of Aeneas’ family, whom the hero led to Latium
after having salvaged them from the lire of Troy Actually the temple appearing in the upper left part of the panel is likely to be that of the Penates, represented as two youths, seated and armed with spears. The image of the small temple in the background must have been easily recognizable to the eyes of the Roman. To them it may have recalled the actual temple of the Penates that was placed, according to Dionysios, on the slopes of the Velia “not far from the Forum, along the narrow road leading to the Carinae,” where the honourable eikone of the Penates, called “works of ancient make” (Ant. Rom. I, 68), were preserved. Such a version, attested by Dionysios and acknowledge by the artists of the Ara Pacis, is very important, because it gives the panel a deeper meaning that surpasses the simple presentation of the myth. Because of the well-known descent of the gens Julia from Aeneas, the two small divinitie that attend the sacrifice from the top of the temple are not only to be identified with the ancestors and protectors of the Trojan hero, but are the same ancestors protecting the house and the person of Augustus. Thus a family link connects the figure of the mythical founder, portrayed on the Ara Pacis as a priest, with the fifty-year-old princeps who, in the month of March, 12 BC, had been raised to the highest office of the Roman priesthood, that of Pontifex Maximus. Augustus himself relates (Res gestae. 10, 2) that his election as pontifex took place, together with the erection of the Ara, during an exceptional comitium. Considering the special relationship that, in Roman religion, the Pontifex Maximus has with the gods that relate Rome to its Trojan origins, it appears clear that the panel with Aeneas was aimed at identifying Augustus with the mythical founder and ancestor of the gens Iulia, through a system of highly evocative allusions. The panel with Aeneas therefore embodied the convergence of religious and political circumstances, of public and dynastic-assets, that came into being with the election of Augustus to the pontificate. Augustus, performing a sacrifice to the Penates as a Pontifex Maximus, is “a priest descending from Aeneas” who thus “touches gods who are his relatives” (Ovid, Fasti, III, 425—426).

Panel with Aeneas sacrificing to the Penates. Since J. Sieveking’s (Sieveking 1907) suggestion to identify Aeneas in the person performing a sacrifice at the centre of this panel, which then became known as the “panel of Aeneas”, scholars have generally agreed upon such identification, that thus became a cornerstone of the iconographical interpretation of the whole Ara Pacis. Recently, however, Paul Rehak (Rehak 2001) has evidenced that, if the sacrifice represented is that of the white sow performed by Aeneas upon his arrival in Latium, then the panel’s iconography appears to present many relevant contradictions: first of all because the figure performing the sacrifice is quite older than the Trojan hero when he landed in Italy; secondly, because there is no evidence of the thirty piglets described in all the versions of the legend; finally, because the two seating gods in the small temple in the background seem not be the Penates, two young gods according to Dionysios of Halikarnassos, to whom Aeneas erected an altar only after the sow’s sacrifice. Who is then the character performing a sacrifice? Rehak suggest that he is Numa Pompilius, the second of the seven kings of Rome, who ruled the city in peacetime and was the great civil and sacred lawgiver of regal Rome, the one who had the temple of Janus built and that right in the Campus Martius celebrated a sacrifice to Mars to confirm the concord between the Sabines and the Romans. Moreover, according to Dionysios, Numa had established a ritual, codified in the Fetial Law, which provided specific rules for waging a just war (bellum justum) against foreign enemies and for framing terms for the establishment of peace. A sow would be sacrificed to seal a treaty of peace, like the one between Rome and Gabii. So, if the scene depicts the sacrifice of Numa, then the rustic altar that serves as the compositional focus at the center of the scene would be the first Roman “Altar of Peace,” a forerunner to the Augustan monument.

© Photo, text: O. Rossini. “Ara Pacis”. Rome, Electa, 2007, p. 30—32.
Keywords: γλυπτική sculptura sculpture sculptural scultura skulptur ρωμαϊκό roman romana romano romani römisch römische römisches römischen römischer romain romaine romains romaines ανακούφιση relief rilievo ara pacis augustae altar of augustan peace altare della pace augustea des friedens augustus autel de la paix auguste august marble aeneas sacrificing to the penates sacrifice sacrificial animal offering hostia hostiae laurels laurel wreath corona di alloro camillus camilli camillae tray lanx with some fruit and bread